Diversity in orientations and gender identities
Eric is 51 and started working at Umicore in 1999 after finalizing their PhD in Chemistry. They are responsible for skills development in the functional materials department of Corporate R&D. "I identify as non-binary, so you can use the 'they/them' pronouns with me" Eric said with a smile. "I shared this fairly recently with colleagues at Umicore, but my personal journey started about three years ago. At some point along this journey, I felt uncomfortable coming to work wearing what were my 'regular clothes'. I felt like I was dressing up. I wanted to be the truest version of myself, as I prefer to wear what western society defines as female-coded clothes".
Eric remembers their personal journey as a long process with lots of questions to answer with the help of professionals and members of the rainbow community. After this process, they were sure they wanted to share it. They planned to do so in 2020, but due to an accident and the Covid-19 situation the moment wasn't right. "It was something I wanted to do in person. This wasn't really something I wanted to share on a video call while I was immobilized", they joked.
"I first came out to my close family and friends and one colleague at Umicore whom I consider a friend", they said smiling. "It was after all the encouragement from my loved ones that I decided to approach my boss, but not before talking to HR. I wanted to be sure how it would work internally. I didn't know anyone else in my work environment who had been through a process like this. Many of my friends in the community shared that I had to be ready for anything: being accepted but also the fact that there might be some rejection. Although I felt certain that rejection wasn't the Umicore Way".
Bringing your full self to work
Eric approached HR Director for Belgium Geert Walschap to determine what process they could follow and how they could share the news. "Two years ago, Eric came to see me to talk about their gender identity and how they could inform their colleagues". Geert thought it was very courageous and immediately gave them his full support. "I am convinced of the psychological value of bringing your full self to work. It contributes to greater commitment and career satisfaction. It is important that all colleagues feel safe to speak about all topics, even the ones that aren't so easy to share. Eric not only plays an important role in this but also sets an important example for other colleagues".
In February 2021, they shared their decision with their manager, who although surprised was accepting and supportive. He advised them on what process they could follow to make sure everyone in the team knew about Eric being his truest self. "I discussed the matter with colleagues and peers, and provided everyone with links to some documentation and places where they could find sources to find out more themselves if they wished. It was positively overwhelming, because there wasn't even any remotely negative interaction, as many had warned me there could be. The reception of my colleagues was not only accepting but really welcoming; they are proud to have a colleague who is fully themself in the team".
This is not the case for everyone, they shared. "At Umicore, and especially in my department, we are already a relatively diverse organization and people are a bit more open to otherness in comparison to other people in other places. I was lucky, as this openness and acceptance are not always what everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community is faced with".
After their news was shared, Eric got messages from other colleagues at Umicore who also celebrated being themselves. "I hoped that my position would set a kind of example and show that it is possible. I am glad to see this response. We even had the opportunity to invite an external company to give a webinar about gender identity and sexual orientation, reflecting on what we could do to inform and share that message". Creating a community where people are visible and there to advise and create awareness makes it safe for others to be themselves.
Working together without hate or discrimination
"What advice would I give my younger self? That's always been a tough question for me", Eric shared when they heard the question. "I was young in another time. If I had to give advice to myself in this time and era, I'd say BE YOURSELF as soon as possible. In an earlier time, it would have been a bit tougher and I am sure there are places in the world where that is still the case. Seeing how happy and comfortable I've felt since coming out, I would have loved to do it sooner. But you have to think of your own safety first. If you are in an environment where you feel safe to do so, it is a relief to be able to be yourself and it also creates awareness and a chance for others to learn".
With international tolerance day approaching, we asked Eric what tolerance meant for them. They said laughing: "Actually, to be honest, I don't like that word. To me it sounds like "just accepting the existence of something I don't really understand". What we should strive for is real inclusion, where the differences really don't matter anymore. The world is diverse. These differences make us stronger. We can all work together without hate or discrimination."